On Having the Courage to Put Yourself Out There

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Comedian Stewart Lee was recently asked whether the internet was making people happier:

“If I was starting out in standup now, I probably wouldn’t do it. Wouldn’t be able to do it. Even if you do a try-out spot to 10 people, the chances are that someone would have got home and tweeted about it. So you go home, look at your name, and someone would say, “This bloke’s shit.” I’d give up. I wouldn’t have the self-belief to get through that stuff”

True, he’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but by any definition of success he’s made it.

If a Bafta and Oliver award winning (he co-wrote Jerry Springer: The Opera) acerbic stand-up believes he could succumb to the fear of putting himself out there, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Social media has many wonderful qualities, but it can be cruel and anyone wanting to break the rules and do something edgy and interesting has to have a pretty thick skin. I’m sure many can identify with self-confessed Twitter addict Jon Ronson (author of So You’ve Been Publically Shamed?) when he describes the “sad feeling” of a tweet going unnoticed, or facing the “black silence when the internet doesn’t talk back”.

In “Death of an Artist: How Social Media is Ruining Creativity” Stephanie Sharlow argues that no matter how creativity is expressed – visuals, movement, sounds or words, social media kills creativity because it perpetuates instant gratification, reducing respect for a craft, a process, a true art form – if it can’t be Googled in 30 seconds or less, it’s useless.

Being new to both trying to create a business (and indeed a different life) and to using social media as a way of connecting with thought leaders and promoting my work, I can really identify with the challenge of overcoming one’s fears and putting oneself out there. Likes, favourites, followers, RTs – all hard data that, if I allow it to, confirms my creative worth. Before I know it I’m back at the S3 school disco wearing that unfashionable lemon jumper.

One of the anti-fear head games I employ is to ask myself what I’d say to my children or friends if it were them choosing the path less travelled and creating something new. Naturally, I’d say, “screw ‘em”. Or maybe more eloquently I’d quote Steve Jobs and tell them “don’t let the noise of other people’s opinions drown out your own inner voice” or recite Roosevelt’s “it’s not the critic who counts…”

But what if you require something more practical than an uplifting motivational quote? In her book “The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It For Life” Twyla Tharp, one of America’s greatest dance choreographers shares practical, liberating exercises applicable to anyone trying to create something. Tharp’s love is tough (“sometimes to force change you have to attack the work with outrage and violence”) and refreshingly suggests that success and creativity comes down to hard work, not inspiration or genes. But even creative warriors are not immune to fear:

“When I walk into [the studio] I am alone, but I am alone with my body, ambition, ideas, passions, needs, memories, goals, prejudices, distractions, fears.

These ten items are at the heart of who I am. Whatever I am going to create will be a reflection of how these have shaped my life, and how I’ve learned to channel my experiences into them.

The last two – distractions and fears – are the dangerous ones. They’re the habitual demons that invade the launch of any project. No one starts a creative endeavour without a certain amount of fear; the key is to learn how to keep free-floating fears from paralysing you before you’ve begun.”

Tharp suggests putting a name to your five big fears to “help cut them down to size” and adopting a “staring down ritual” like a boxer in the ring looking his opponent in the eye before a bout. I’m sure my five are pretty common:

  1. I will not earn a decent living from my endeavours.
  2. I will be a mediocre consultant.
  3. That what I have to say is not novel or thought provoking but a re-hash of what other more brilliant people are saying.
  4. That I will never bring the full range of all my capabilities into reality.
  5. That I will be too scared to take my ideas as far as I know I can go with them, because I am worried about what people will think of me.


And the pep talk I give myself when employing the staring down ritual:

  1. Early experience suggests otherwise – in the last six months I’ve generated enough in fees to give me confidence that I can.
  2. Maybe I will, but even being conscious of not wanting to be mediocre is a start!
  3. In Tharp’s words I need to get over myself – everything’s been said before.
  4. As Tharp says – better an imperfect dome in Florence than cathedrals in the clouds!
  5. I will never know if I don’t try and those people can’t care that much about me if they think negatively of me


It’s comforting to know that even a famous choreographer who’s been in the game for nearly 40 years questions whether it’s pathetic to still require a pep talk to deal with her demons, but having a staring down ritual for each of our fears can help clear the fog of self-doubt and confusion.

Fear tells us that something is important to us – the more fear we feel about something, the more certain we can be that the endeavor is important to us. There is nothing wrong with being afraid, the only mistake is to let it paralyse you from creating in the first place.

Strive valiantly to channel your passions into something meaningful. It’s not the critic who counts. The credit does belong to the (wo)man who is actually in the arena, not the one tweeting “this bloke’s shit”.
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